We’ve all seen that cliche image from times past – a father, back relaxed in an easy chair, legs propped up on a footrest. Perhaps he’s wearing a robe, smoking a pipe, and even wearing slippers. Or at the very least maybe the family dog is bringing the slippers or paper to him.
I don’t want to talk about those guys.
I want to talk about a few other fictional fathers of the screen that aren’t that stereotype of 1950s America so often thought of when reflecting on old TV shows of the past. I want to talk about a few fellas who, whether the present or the past, have, for the most part (they all have off days or an idea that’s a bit out of touch now and then, but we’ll forgive them) are solid foundations of fatherhood, and examples that those of us living outside the screen can look to for a little inspiration and example as to what it means to not just be a father, but to be a dad.
Judge James Hardy
Putting aside the one initial appearance of Lionel Barrymore, Judge James Hardy is most commonly known as being depicted by actor Lewis Stone in the plethora of films within the Andy Hardy series from MGM Studios throughout the 1930s and 40s. With themes of themes of honor, integrity, courage in the face of scandal, and maturity, the sixteen films revolving around the Hardy Family were an idealized vision of what America could be, if everyone treated each other the right way and stood by a core set of values and honor.
While the films over time took their focus to young Andy Hardy, at the center of those themes and values was James Hardy – father, husband, member of the community, and never too busy for his family. While some onscreen fathers of the time were distant, driven by work, no time for distraction, Judge Hardy always had the time to recognize how crucial wife Emily was to the family and he, to lend an ear to son Andy or daughter Marion, and took the time to listen to their troubles and emotions. Often referred to as ‘man-to-man talks,’ James rarely ordered his children around, instead offering the guidance and wisdom that allowed them to come to their own revelations and decisions of character, that laid the foundation for good, honest people of the next generation.
(Sadly, hard as I try, I couldn’t find a classic Hardy ‘man-to-man’ talk online to post)
Good-natured, goofy, but absolutely neurotic, Rob Petrie, played by Dick Van Dyke in the aptly titled The Dick Van Dyke Show, seemed to have a dream life, despite the sitcom hijinks. A loving wife who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and difference of opinion, a son with many questions for the ever-worrying dad, and a dream job as a comedy writer for the sketch comedy show – The Alan Brady Show. Rob had a good heart, even if he did trip over himself at times in trying to be the good dad and husband he wanted to be, and it made he, and the entire Petrie family, all the more human.
The Dick Van Dyke Show, still today, ranks among one of the best sitcoms of all time. 50 years later. And it’s just as enjoyable for audiences. Whereas some shows of decades past feel dated, out of touch, it’s never the case with the Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob, Laura, Richie, or any of the characters. Because the brilliant Carl Reiner (who created the show) was making a show about real people. And though times may change, human emotions do not. It’s because of that brilliant writing that Rob is just as great an example of a person, co-worker, husband, and father today that he was five decades ago.
A farmer from Kansas traveling with his wife when they find a baby, abandoned in a field. Oh, and that baby’s inside a spaceship that obviously just fell from outer space.
Jonathan and Martha Kent had no idea what that baby was or what he would become. But they knew, before them, stood a child with no one other than they to help him make this planet his home. Saving him from the government containment, dissection, or weaponization that could possibly follow upon finding an alien, the Kents, salt of the Earth, good, virtuous people, decided to take this baby into their home and their lives, and raise him as their own.
When little Clark Kent grew up, the Kents had no idea who or what he would be or represent. But they knew they had the task to raise a good boy, who cared about others, and one who, as he started to show special talents and gifts beyond those of mortal men, would use those powers to help the world, to save lives, to be a beacon of hope.
That spaceship could have landed anywhere on Earth. And who knows what type of person baby Kal-El of the planet Krypton would have grown up to be? Fortunately for humanity in the pages of comics, novels, cartoons, television, and films, he landed in a corn field and was found by the Kents, whose salt of the Earth personalities, and lives of good morality laid the foundation for the hard-working, virtuous, optimistic, and all-around good person Superman is today. (in most interpretations lately. I hear it varies in recent years)
So he may not be anyone’s top pick, and that’s okay. He wasn’t necessarily mine either. However, there was something about the way Daniel Tiger’s dad, seen multiple days a week on PBS Kids Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, quietly, gently handles fatherhood. At times he may seem like a figure that fades into the surroundings, but it could easily be because he and Mrs Tiger are such equal partners.
Sometimes he’s silly, sometimes he’s childlike, rolling around on the floor or crawling through pillow and sheet tunnels with Daniel, understanding and experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be a child alongside Daniel and baby Margaret.
And he works in a clock factory that’s shaped like a giant grandfather clock. Tell me you wouldn’t want to show up to work at a building that looked like that everyday.
There’s a bit of him, and the entire show that for those of us old enough to remember, hearkens back to the soft-spoken, big-hearted, watch-wearing tiger cat on Mr Roger’s Neighborhood that inspired this entirely new generation of lessons in what it means to be a good person.
The Man in the Yellow Hat
It takes a lot of patience to be a father-figure to a precocious monkey. But somehow, The Man in the Yellow Hat seems to have the endless patience I can only wish for. Whether it’s a trashed apartment, a lost portfolio, or a stampede of pumpkins causing chaos and scattering crowds in a small town, there’s usually a monkey with the curiosity of a preschooler behind it, and the understanding Man in the Yellow Hat to explain it without losing his top.
While preschoolers can see the world through the relatable eyes of George and his wonder of the world, the level of fear, over-protection, and sheer joy with every uttered “oh boy” or “be a good little monkey” is the parental heart of the series for us grown ups and makes the Man in the Yellow Hat a source of joy, wonder, guidance and learning, and fun for George that I hope we could all be for our own kids.
Of course, this list is by no means conclusive. Merely a sampling of some of my own favorites of fictional dads that I think help set the bar.
What about you? What on-screen dad examples have you ever looked at with a feeling of inspiration?
I’ve gone on and on previously as to why my comic book reading is few and far between these days, likely taking me the full gamut from childhood comic fan to young adult comic aficionado to now being that parent who will one day tell my son that those funnybooks were ‘better in my day!’
With that said, and in all fairness, I thought I should at least give a shout out to the few comic books that I do love to purchase and read, notably because they hold a connection to all the timeless features of comics and characters from my childhood.
Batman ’66 – I’m glad to see the Adam West and Burt Ward era of Batman finally getting a little well-deserved respect. For the longest time, artists, writers, filmmakers, comic readers – they all cringed at the mere mention of the 1966 Batman TV series. I have some friends that still do. But you know what? THEY didn’t make Batman lighthearted, they merely reflected (and accurately, I might add) the Batman comic books of the time period. And catching reruns as a kid (when the Michael Keaton film was coming out, so reruns were everywhere) I loved it. I still do.
Every month I get a comic I can pick up and count on to deliver some whiz-bang-pow fun with very colorful villains just as I remember them. It tells great, done-in-one-issue stories that are like they walked right out of the 60s. It’s a wonderful throwback to simpler times of comic books. I even submitted a proposal for a Batman ’66 story I wrote myself featuring Louie the Lilac and The Minstrel, but alas, any comic with “Bat” in the title these days is big business and small writers like myself are usually not let into the club. Thus, I will continue merely as an entertained reader.
Adventures of Superman – It’s true when I say they just don’t publish Superman comics like they used to. As I’ve mentioned in my lament about comics these days trying to be more evergreen and ready to launch into movies and TV shows, everyone is young, unattached, with very little history to draw upon. This book, however, is different.
And that’s just why I love it.
It’s classic Superman. The Superman we all know, whether we watched George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or just Supes cartoons, you can pick up this anthology, with anywhere from 1-3 stories per issue, and just get classic tales of Superman, the way we all remember him in our memories.
I remember the first time I heard that catchphrase “Who Knows What Evil….Lurks in the Hearts of Men?” or that sinister laugh. I was hooked. Still am.
While the first few issues of this new comic series were more bloody than I would like (I prefer my Shadow a bit more cerebral, like the Orson Welles-era radio plays), the fact that the series keeps itself set in the 1930s is enough to keep me reading.
Another side note on my writing career – I also sent a proposal pitch to Dynamite Entertainment for a Shadow: Classics series, which would adapt some of the old radio scripts to comic form. Alas, once again, it went unanswered. Maybe someone else will pick up on it and do it. Heck, I’d just like to read it. Some of those old radio plays were downright eerie.
Life with Archie – I was never a regular reader of Archie growing up, but sporadically, as a kid, I’d pick up an issue to see what that red-headed ladies’ man was up to. This book intrigued me when I came across it in the grocery store because it’s Archie and his pals all grown up.
On top of that, each book is actually two books. You get one story set in a hypothetical universe where Archie has married Betty and another set in a world where Archie has married Veronica. Yes, Archie apparently gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Either way, he and the gang deal with very adult issues and problems and I love seeing the chances taken by placing these characters in a new, grown-up environment.
So, there you have it. What my comic reading is up to these days. In between these occasional reads, I’ll usually try to sneak in a novel or non-fiction book here and there, or an old comic hardcover or collected edition off my bookshelf, something from the past that I know I enjoyed and will continue to love.
And see, I even was willing to spill the beans to you all about my hopeless attempts at comic pitches that are just out there in the ether. I haven’t quite admitted those to anybody, so there you go. Two for the price of one. 🙂